Women in UX: Meet Tina Gong, Designer of Labyrinthos Academy, Tarot Decks and Apps
As an artist, Tina Gong’s work pulls from her background in linguistics and weaving signs and symbols into the illustrations she creates. As a tarot reader, she understands how these symbols are used to convey meaning, and how people respond to them and apply them to the narratives of their own lives. As a UX designer, she has turned this knowledge into a unique form of empathy that helps her better understand the psychological motivations of a user’s behavior.
“I think I’ve always been the type of person that likes reading below the surface or trying to understand what is the meaning of things beyond what is just being said,” Tina said. “I think that that’s a big part of UX, to understand psychological drive behind what makes one person click on one button versus another. I’ve always seen UX as something that is about knowing the drive, knowing the motivations, knowing what people want to do, and helping them do that.”
Tina grew up in New York City. She went to a science high school in the Bronx and was encouraged by her parents to follow that trajectory — but she was an artist at heart, drawing ever since she was a young girl. After being pre-med for a while, she decided to switch majors to linguistics. She couldn’t imagine another eight years of pursuing the path of a doctor and imagined she’d be a professor instead. That is, until one of her own professors pointed out Tina’s shyness. She decided a job in graphic design might be a better path for her introverted personality.
Tina’s journey to UX
Tina succeeded, landing a graphic design job at Plum Alley, a company founded by her friend’s mother Deborah Jackson. Plum Alley is a private membership platform that invests in female-founded companies, so it is not surprising to hear Tina tell of how Deborah became an inspiration to her, calling her almost like a “second mom.”
“She was all about getting more women into technology, and she was part of the whole start-up circuit. That’s where I was able to learn all those things about design, and my responsibilities under her just became bigger and bigger. She also was happy to let me play around with code even though bugs popped up and everything. She just gave me a lot of room to grow, experiment, and play,” Tina said.
“One of the things that Deborah wanted to build was a crowdfunding site for women. My boss was adamant on getting a female, but it was really hard to find. In the short term, I found this open-source, crowdfunding platform, and just started out by restyling everything and then working on HTML and CSS to change the layout and everything. It was a little scary, but for the most part, it was all right, and way better than building it from scratch. That’s sort of how I started working on front-end stuff.”
Tina is now a self-taught front-end developer and UX designer. She works part-time at an automated social media platform company called SumAll and manages her tarot business, Labyrinthos Academy, on the side.
Labyrinthos Academy is an online, app-based school that she’s built and designed to help others learn tarot. She wears many proverbial hats as the founder, designer, developer, and creator of the Academy. She has also designed four stunning tarot decks, all of which have companion apps: The Golden Thread Tarot, the Luminous Spirit Tarot, the Seventh Sphere Tarot de Marseille and the Seventh Sphere Lenormand. For a while, she worked on it full-time and even had an assistant, but eventually she decided to return to work on a part-time basis.
Being shy, dividing her time between her own company and her part-time job allows her to put things in perspective and to collaborate with others, something other quiet designers may relate to.
“Artists need inspiration from life. You can’t just close yourself off to the world. It really pays off to interact with people, to talk with people, to just do a lot of things that I think I haven’t built up the motivation to do on my own,” she said.
The relationship between tarot and UX
Tina is inherently intuitive, which may be why she’s able to build on her experience as a tarot reader and make it a part of her UX work as well. She draws many parallels between the two.
“I think in order to give a good tarot reading, you have to understand what that person is really concerned about. They might not be able to ask that thing directly, because they don’t necessarily feel comfortable, or they don’t know how to phrase it. For example, if a person asks what is their relationship going to be like, you know that their goal is to be with this person. There’s a lot of context that goes in, in terms of asking the question. You have to be in tune with that. You have to know the context of the situation and what drives them. It’s also really about designing that experience so that people feel like they are connected to the reading,” Tina said.
“I personally don’t believe that the power rests in the cards, but in order to give a reading and to give some sort of feeling of solace and peace to the person that you’re reading for, you have to make it feel real. You also have to, again, be in touch with what their primary drives are. I think I’m very influenced by [art-film director Alejandro] Jodorowsky. He has this way of seeing tarot like a healing process. I think that UX is very similar in that sense, in being able to design an experience that helps the user get to where they want to be.”
She’s constantly working on bugs with her own apps as well as designing new decks. That’s actually how this whole thing started. A standard tarot deck has 78 cards, each with layers of meaning. She wanted to know the cards more intimately and challenged herself to draw one card each day.
“I think eventually when you work with someone else’s deck and you are a designer yourself, you just want your own deck,” Tina said. “I made my first deck, the Golden Tarot, from that. I was basically illustrating a card a day and eventually I had a whole deck.”
Eventually, people wanted printed versions and she ended up producing the deck. The companion apps were developed as an alternative to the little white books that conventionally come with tarot decks, but even this has been a learning for Tina in terms of what users want.
“I didn’t ask around, I think, as much as I should have, because now that I’ve done this, I definitely also have met people that do not like having technology in their reading,” she said.
“I’m thinking now that I might actually start making a guidebook for those people, but back then the app just seemed like a no-brainer. I always felt interrupted when you have to pause, look up the meaning of the card, flip over another card, pause, try and find the meaning of that card. It was just really tedious, so I definitely felt like with technology I could do something better.”
Learning a product that’s “good enough” is better than no product at all
Another big lesson for Tina has been coming to terms with the idea that one person can’t do everything.
“One thing I’ve learned while making these apps is that when I was designing things for other companies, for example, I would go all out. I would do all these very cool, new, fancy ways of building things. When I started building things for myself, I was very aware of the limitations,” she said.
She had features she desperately wanted to perfect, like the way in which the cards slide in the app, but she had to come to terms with not including everything. Certain things would have taken her months to learn how to do, and she just did not have that kind of time.
“For the most part, everything was done in a way that was like, ‘Okay, I actually think that this is the easiest thing to code and it is good enough,’” she said. “That is definitely a trade-off that I sadly realized when I started making my own apps.”
It’s not that sad, though. Tina is in her early 20s and she has already accomplished so much and learned a significant amount about herself as a person and a designer. She has realized that cording isn’t her passion and will likely have to outsource some of these responsibilities in the future.
“I like making something and having it come to life, but a lot of the coding maintenance makes me feel like this is not something I would like to do professionally. But again, it was definitely exciting being able to do that on my own and learning how to do that,” she said.
All of Tina’s apps are available to users for free, as she believes giving away this information is powerful. It is only through the sales of the tarot decks themselves that she earns revenue.
If you’ve ever been curious about tarot, Tina’s applications are an excellent way to start exploring the ancient tool. After all, those who are initially skeptics often become some of her best customers.